After "the long hiatus of 2020", St Patrick’s Lilydale Parish celebrated its 150th anniversary last Sunday with a Celtic-inspired gathering. The celebrations began with morning Mass celebrated by Parish Administrator Fr Francis Denton, concelebrant by Fr John Dupuche, a "full fleet of servers" and the parish choir.

As part of the gathering, an historic painting of St Patrick (which was originally purchased by the parish in 1896), was reinstated in the church and solemnly incensed during Mass.

‘Things are slowly beginning to go back to "normal", however, it’s very difficult for me to take stock of the state of the parish in a comparative sense,’ explains Fr Denton, who is still getting to know the parish as his appointment came just before the pandemic.

What was once an active and flourishing community, Fr Denton says, is now an older congregation with few young families in the area. He shares that the Italian community has been the backbone of the parish for generations and the once popular "Pasta nights" are not as frequent as they used to be. Attendance for the charismatic prayer group and other regular events have also been in steep decline, Fr Denton says, and the pandemic hampered any opportunities for other local gatherings. It has been a struggle for the community, Fr Denton shares, as the restrictions also meant that parishioners were unable to farewell their former Parish Priest and welcome (in person) their new Parish Administrator.

As such, both Fr Denton and the crowd of 150 on Sunday were thrilled to come together for the first time in a long time to mark their feast day.

‘The 150th Anniversary celebration was the Parish’s first big social function since I arrived almost a year ago. For that very reason I wanted to use the occasion to kick start a bit of enthusiasm,’ Fr Denton says. ‘Throughout the afternoon we were entertained with a range of live music ensembles featuring mostly Irish folk music, including the novelty of the Irish bagpipes.'

‘We were treated to two troupes of Irish dancers as well as some traditional Kiribati dances,’ he says.

The parishioners then battled it out with a local trivia quiz and had the opportunity to re-discover the past with a parish memorabilia display which included a variety of parish photo albums documenting the life of the parish many decades.

‘Parishioners all commented on how nice it was to be able to have such social gatherings again,’ says Fr Denton. ‘It was by every account a great success!’

150 Years of St Patrick’s, Lilydale

Homily by Fr Francis Denton

One hundred and fifty years ago, on the Feast of St Patrick, 17 March 1871, Archbishop James Alipius Goold made the trek out to the budding rural township of Lilydale. The purpose of his visit was the consecration of the newly constructed church of St Patrick’s Lilydale. What would Archbishop Goold have seen? Perhaps a cluster of houses scattered about the recently cleared land, each with a plume of smoke arising from their chimneys (since there were no amenities), but otherwise rough paddocks and bushland as far as the eye could see.

Given the rugged and primitive conditions and the virtual absence of any real infrastructure, it is an insight into the priorities of the era that 150 years ago the Catholics of Melbourne considered building such a stately and permanent church to be a worthwhile investment of time, energy and money. The stone used was locally-quarried granite which certainly sped up the construction time. Indeed, from the laying of the first stone the entire original church was constructed in just four months - a testament to the generosity, fervent faith, and enthusiasm of the local Catholic population. The result was a noble, finely proportioned, slate-roofed church that would stand the test of time. Such a church was a sign of great promise for the future of Lilydale, and the beginning of the spiritual heart-beat of the future parish of Lilydale. No doubt the local Catholics brimmed with pride as a man as cultured as Archbishop Goold inspected the church, visibly impressed at their achievement.

What the local Catholics of the mid-nineteenth century lacked in resources and infrastructure they made up for in faith (a reality has been basically inverted today). The light of faith invariably gives a grandeur and scope of vision that can see potential and possibility in the most forlorn of prospects. A seed was planted and given the opportunity to grow and multiply. We are in so many ways, the beneficiaries of the incalculable sacrifices that our forebears in the faith made for us who built with an eye for future generations. In the years to come the church of St Patrick’s would undergo various extensions and renovations the last of which (1997) has expanded the capacity of the church significantly whilst striving to remain sympathetic to the historic character of the original building. This reflects the ways in which this parish has continued to grow and expand over the years.

While St Patrick’s Lilydale is without doubt one of the historic and architectural gems of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, more inspiring still is spiritual edifice that has been built up over the years with the living stones of the many faithful souls. St Patrick’s has had its fair share of characters like the beloved Fr Carmine Tricarico (better known to all the locals as ‘Fr Tric’) with his pair of mischievous white-haired terriers, Fish and Chips. Whether in spite of his eccentricities or because of them, this “Exuberant Italian” was loved by all his flock, because they soon came to see that he was foremost a devoted pastor of souls. Many of the older parishioners will still fondly recount their anecdotes of Fr Tric.

Nor has the spirit of selfless service been lacking in the laity of Lilydale parish. One such example is Mrs Moira Tanks, who came at the request of the priest to help out as a teacher at St Patrick’s Primary school at a time when the classrooms were full to overflowing. Initially engaged to fill in for a few weeks, Mrs Tanks ended up dedicating twenty-six years of her life to teaching at St Patrick’s Primary school, at a time when half the children spoke little English. Her overcrowded ‘classrooms’ included corridors, outdoor shelter sheds, and (at one point) a class of seventy in the side aisle of the church. On the side, Mrs Tanks volunteered as a catechist in government schools, worked with St Vincent de Paul and with the St John of God home assisting those with disabilities. Her life was one of exemplary, cheerful Christian service.

Not too many churches in Australia have had the chance to celebrate such an historic milestone as 150 years. Such an occasion is an opportunity for us to be able to gratefully acknowledge the contributions made by so many men and women of faith, who have built up this parish in so many ways, some whose names have been recorded and immortalised but many more whose names have been long forgotten. St Patrick's began as a largely Irish Catholic community, then from the 1960s became predominantly Italian. Today it is increasingly multicultural. These changes are to be expected in a living, growing parish community. This moment of self-reflection is also an opportunity for the parish to look to the future and dream large. What might St Patrick’s Lilydale look like in another 150 years? We can only hope that the proud tradition of deep faith and cheerful service will continue long into the future, with many chapters of our history yet to be written.